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Tiger Woods Biographer Says Golfer's Masters Comeback 'Transcends Sports'


This is FRESH AIR. On the last hole of the Masters Golf Tournament Sunday, Tiger Woods made sports history when he stood over a two-foot putt on the 18th green.


JIM NANTZ: Many doubted we'd ever see it, but here it is.


NANTZ: The return to glory.


DAVIES: Woods' fifth Masters title at age 43 followed a 10-year drought of major tournament victories and completed a remarkable comeback from a personal scandal that all but ruined his reputation and back surgery that left him unable to swing the club at all. For some perspective on Woods' career and his achievement, we turn to Jeff Benedict. He's the author, with Armen Keteyian, of a widely read biography published last year called "Tiger Woods." It's now out in paperback.

Well, Jeff Benedict, welcome to FRESH AIR. Tiger Woods dominated golf like nobody ever - like few people dominate anything, really. Give us a sense of how he was trained for this life and skill. How - you know, how young was he when he started learning golf?

JEFF BENEDICT: I think it's fair to say Tiger was 2 years old when he really started to learn golf. He was 1 when he started watching his father play golf or practice golf in the garage. And that was a daily regimen, where he would sit there and watch his father putt. By the time he was 2, Tiger was putting and starting to practice and learn things with his dad. He was in golf all the time.

By the time Tiger's 12 or 13, there's some really intense training going on that goes beyond what most parents would deem appropriate. Earl would do things like - they were demeaning. I mean, he would call Tiger very demeaning names, names that I can't use on the air. It was an attempt to put him down or break him down in a mental way and an emotional way while Tiger was practicing. It was intended to toughen him and really prepare him for what was ahead. They had a code word between the two of them. The word was enough. And Tiger was to use that word if his father ever pushed him too far. He never used that word.

DAVIES: His dad, Earl, was African-American. His mom, Kultida, was Thai. And Earl would sometimes yell racial epithets at Tiger. Was that to prepare him for a racist world that he would encounter?

BENEDICT: I think part of the reason he used those epithets was because Earl had a really good understanding of where his son was going. He knew that where Tiger was going was the country club set. When he was a young boy and a teenager - Tiger, that is - Earl was constantly looking for ways to help his son beat the country club kids who had all the advantages of wealth and socioeconomic status.

And so part of that, those racial epithets - yeah, he - that's part of what's factored into it. Tiger would be competing on golf courses as a teenager where there were no kids of color. There were no parents of color. There was just nobody of color at these clubs. And then this boy would walk out onto the course, and all eyes would be on him because he was - not only did he look differently than everybody else, but he was so much better than everybody else. And there's a tremendous amount of pressure - emotional pressure that comes with that. And Earl was trying to put a shield or forcefield around his son that would enable him to cope with that when he reached the PGA tour.

DAVIES: When he joined the PGA Tour - there are a lot of ways to measure this - how good was he?

BENEDICT: He arrives like a comet. I mean, if you think about it, in 1997, he hasn't been on the tour for a year yet, and he goes to the Masters and wins by a record margin. I mean, you're talking about a boy basically, right? He's just come out of college as a sophomore. And he doesn't just win the Masters. He trashes the Masters. He completely annihilates the field. His driving distance off the tee is so much farther than everybody else. It's a bit like watching a bionic man hit a golf ball. And everybody's watching this going, this is the future. I mean, this kid's just got here. You're - everybody's playing for second place. I mean, he - that's how he arrived.

DAVIES: You know, I read in your book about that Masters in which he made history by setting course records and tournament records that - you know, a major golf tournament is 72 holes. The first nine holes, he played horribly. He would have been sent home except he turned it around after nine and refocused. This is remarkable.

BENEDICT: It is, and I think that that's one of the reasons that to this day, Tiger Woods gives tremendous credit to his father. There is a bond between them. There's a reason for that iconic moment at the end of that Masters where Earl and Tiger are embracing and crying into each other's shoulders and expressing, I love you to each other. It's - that was sort of the culmination of the 18 years of grinding, driving training between Earl and Tiger. And it paid off with that Masters.

It's - that's the role really of Earl that you saw come out in Tiger. He was there for that Masters. And frankly, he shouldn't have been because Earl was ill, and he was - his doctor advised him not to go. But he went, and he had a role in helping Tiger turn it around mentally.

DAVIES: Tiger Woods had a remarkable career as a professional. I want to talk about, though, what his body went through. It's interesting, you know? You see some golfers - and I play the game a little. And you see some golfers who have a nice, relaxed swing, and the ball just takes off like a rocket. But Tiger didn't. I mean, every time he swung a club, even one of the shorter clubs, it was just an explosion of impact. Tell us a bit about what his body went through and the toll that it took on him - all the practice and play.

BENEDICT: I think that the best way to describe or differentiate Tiger's - not only his swing but his approach to golf is this - that when he first joined the PGA Tour in '96, the adjective that was used to describe his swing was violent. Violent is not a word you typically associate with golf. I mean, that's a word for football or boxing. But Earl was all about weaponizing his son. When Tiger struck the ball, it was like an explosion. His high school girlfriend told us that the first time she witnessed Tiger drive a ball at a driving range, it felt and sounded like a rocket taking off.

Now, over time, his swing coach Butch Harmon was concerned that that violent torque of a swing on his back was going to have some negative consequences. They were actually trying early on to tone it down. Even his youth instructor was trying to get him to not swing so hard and so violently. But on the other hand, that was part of who he was and part of what made him great. But it did take a toll.

DAVIES: And he finally got - what? - spinal fusion surgery. What does that mean? What did it mean for him?

BENEDICT: The fourth and final back surgery that Tiger Woods had was a spinal fusion surgery. And, you know, there was a lot of question as to whether that would work, whether he'd be able to return. Most experts and prognosticators predicted that he would never play again.

The thing is, as you - everybody underestimates who this man is and how this man was made. And I'm talking more now about - not about how he was built physically, but I'm talking about how he was built mentally. And there's things like determination and grit that Tiger possesses and to a degree that I think really separates him from everybody else. And I don't just mean the other golfers on the PGA tour. I'm talking about athletes in general. He's a rare world-class athlete that has grit and determination and a pain threshold that just - it's unlike any athlete that I've seen or written about.

DAVIES: Jeff Benedict is the author with Armen Keteyian of the book "Tiger Woods." It's now out in paperback. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Jeff Benedict. He is the author with Armen Keteyian of the biography "Tiger Woods," which is now out in paperback.

His marriage exploded in a scandal in 2009 - turned out he'd had multiple extramarital affairs. And in general, it's fair to say looking at this biography that he's - was in many ways not the most admirable person. I will say I'd give some slack to people who get fame and wealth at a very young age. I mean, a lot of us do stupid things when we're young, and we just don't have the means and the attention for them to be so noticed. How much has he changed? What's your sense of that? Is he different towards other players, fans, other relationships?

BENEDICT: I think he's evolved. He's evolved a lot over time. He's in his 40s now. He's been through more than - it's hard to actually find someone on the planet that's been through things comparable to Tiger because of the fame he had. So when he made the mistakes that he made, we all watched them in real time. And it was a colossal fall from grace. He was mimicked. He was mocked. He was criticized. He was made fun of. He was the butt of jokes on late night television. Where I think this changed was the way he dealt with that.

I've never seen a public figure respond to controversy the way he did. He faced the cameras. He answered the tough questions. He didn't run and hide. He took it, and he took it in a way that I think impressed people. People might not have been impressed with what he did, but the way he responded to it, I think, was the beginning of a change.

And then you had that 10-year period from 2009 when he had the car accident until 10 years later where he was - went through all the injuries. And now what you're seeing is he's a father with children. He's a super dedicated dad. He's got his career back. He thought he'd never play again. Now he's playing again. He's got his health back and his mobility.

And I think he looks at everything differently. He looks at the game differently. He looks at life differently. You can see it. There's a genuineness to the way he is engaged with people now. This is not an act. It's not the nasty thing you saw 15 years ago when he was at the pinnacle of his game. What you're seeing now is a guy, I think, who loves what he's doing. To me, that potentially makes him more dangerous. As long as he stays healthy, he could be really hard to beat over the next few years.

DAVIES: So what he did last weekend, winning the Masters at age 43 after debilitating surgery and his - you know, the blow-up of his career - how big is this in the annals of sports?

BENEDICT: It could very well go down as the greatest comeback in the history of sports. What he came back from is unprecedented because of just how far he'd fallen. This wasn't just, you know, a decent golfer who had some public humiliation. This was the greatest golfer of all time. This was one of the greatest athletes in history who had an incredibly precipitous fall that took him right out of the game. It turned his life upside down. And we all watched it. And then it culminated with a series of injuries that took him out of the sport entirely. People didn't expect him to ever play again, let alone come back and do something like win the Masters.

The reason it's doubly great is because this is a comeback story that transcends sports. We all know what's happened to him in his private life because it played out so publicly. And so the message of Tiger's life, I think, has become, you know, just because you're down doesn't necessarily mean you're out. And that's a message that resonates with a lot of people who may not even care about golf or sports in general.

I think that there's a lot of people that have watched this. And the reason they've been inspired by it is because they got introduced to him after the scandal. And that's when they realized, oh, this was the great golfer; look what's happened to him. And now they see that he's turned all that around, and he's gotten it back.

DAVIES: Jeff Benedict, thanks so much for speaking with us.

BENEDICT: Thank you.

DAVIES: Jeff Benedict is the author with Armen Keteyian of the 2018 book "Tiger Woods." It's now out in paperback.

It's baseball season, and on tomorrow's show, we learn about fastballs, curveballs, screwballs and spitballs from New York Times national baseball writer Tyler Kepner. He talked to hundreds of pitchers about what they throw and how they try to get a mental edge over the hitters they face. His new book is "K: A History Of Baseball In Ten Pitches." Join us.


DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

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